Analysis |

Netanyahu Caught Between Two Impatient Allies: Trump and Rabbis

As Israel is threatened by a total lockdown over Rosh Hashanah to satisfy Haredi rabbis, a trip abroad, even to sign a 'historic' agreement, is insufferable

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Ultra-Orthodox leaders Yaakov Litzman (L) and Arye Dery (C) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, November 18, 2019.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders Yaakov Litzman (L) and Arye Dery (C) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, November 18, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In the sweltering noon of Israel’s most crowded city, the “red” Bnei Brak, no one believed on Sunday that they would be under lockdown the next day. It simply didn’t make any sense that in 24 hours, 200,000 men, women and children would be stuffed into the tiny, fetid apartments, and the yeshiva students would cease their study in the month of mercy and forgiveness. Certainly not while in adjacent, “green” Ramat Gan restaurants and coffee shops remained open.

“With all respect due to the government. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky decides for us,” said one kollel student rushing past on Rabbi Akiva Street. He was right. The prime minister cannot force a lockdown on those who are keeping him in power. With his political instincts, it’s hard to believe he thought he could. Bnei Brak mayor Avraham Rubinstein and his colleagues from the Haredi towns of Elad, Betar Ilit and Emmanuel showed Netanyahu a yellow card.

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The ultra-Orthodox mayors were not acting on their own accord. Their combative letter to Netanyahu, in which they accused him of “trampling the honor of the Torah greats, the Torah life, the customs of communities and the respect for tradition of the majority of the Jewish inhabitants of this land” – using the type of language normally reserved only for the main “enemies” of Haredi politics, Avigdor Lieberman and Yair Lapid – was sent with the blessing of the senior ultra-Orthodox politicians and rabbis. This isn’t yet the end of their alliance with Netanyahu, but it is a clear deviation from the ground rules of the relationship.

In previous crises, the Haredi politicians focused their ire on lower-level targets. Four years ago, when they were up in arms over infrastructure work on Shabbat, they attacked the transportation minister. This time, they were supposed to be gunning for “Coronavirus Czar” Ronni Gamzu, the national scapegoat.

But the global pandemic has changed the rules. The coronavirus doesn’t stop at the borders of the Haredi autonomy and not even at Ben Gurion Airport. The ultra-Orthodox saw last month how Netanyahu was openly making fools of them, when he simultaneously appointed a ministerial committee to recommend how to allow the Breslav Hasidim to make their annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman’s grave in Uman, while reaching out to the Ukrainian government to prevent their arrival. They realized, as they wrote in the letter, that Gamzu is Netanyahu’s “straw man.”

The alliance between the completely secular Netanyahu and the Haredi leadership is based on a clear demarcation. They give him full political backing, even when on trial for bribery and fraud, and take no interest in diplomatic and security matters. He guarantees financial support for their separate education system and doesn’t interfere in the strictly religious curriculum or draft young Haredi men to the IDF. He gives them control of ministries dealing with matters that don’t interest him, such as local government, health and housing.

Bnei Brak residents walking the streets, wearing face masks, September 3, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Each side knows its limitations. Netanyahu knows that the low participation of Haredim in the workforce is disastrous in the long-term for Israel’s economy. But he does nothing about it. The Haredim would love to close Israel down completely on Shabbat, but they stick to the status quo.

This convenient arrangement has come under unbearable tension in the age of COVID-19. The “traffic light plan” to lock down “red towns” where over half the Haredi population live, closing the yeshivas during the Elul term and restricting synagogue prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, all while the rest of the country continues more or less as normal, is an unthinkable hilul hashem, a desecration of God’s name. If anything, there should be a total national lockdown.

But beyond the economic damage of a lockdown, Netanyahu knows that if 8.5 million Israelis are forced into lockdown to satisfy the rabbis of 500,000 ultra-Orthodox, Likud will hemorrhage more Knesset seats in the polls and his desired option of an early election will disappear. But Shas leader Arye Dery is demanding a national lockdown and can sign Netanyahu’s eviction order from the Balfour residence at any moment, should he choose to do so.

Netanyahu still hopes to fly in a few days to Washington to sign the agreement with the United Arab Emirates. Donald Trump is anxious to hold a grand ceremony at the White House, coronavirus be damned, where he hopes to present himself as the ultimate deal-maker and boost his flagging prospects of a second term.

If only he had managed to get his cabinet to agree to the “traffic light plan,” and “only” seven percent of Israelis were under lockdown, he could fly off. But with Israel threatened with a total lockdown over Rosh Hashanah, a trip abroad, even to sign a “historic” agreement, is insufferable. Netanyahu is stuck between two impatient allies, Donald Trump and Arye Dery.

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